Firbank's first book, Odette d'Antrevernes, was published in 1905. The title-story is a feeble pastiche of Maeterlinck at his most cloying; it gives no hint of the way in which its author was to develop, and is interesting only as exhibiting, in its pure form, that sickly 'fin de siege' romanticism which Firbank was never quite to discard, and of which traces can still be detected even in his latest and most mature work. Bound up with the original 'Odette', but not reprinted in later editions, was a short sketch, A Study in Temperament, which though of little intrinsic worth does foreshadow, if only dimly, Firbank's characteristic style, and in which, significantly, he is already poking fun at Maeterlinck ('It is so delightful to be seen reading Maeterlinck! So decadent!' remarks one of the characters).
Next in order of writing comes The Artificial Princess, though in fact this was not published until after Firbank's death; it can be assumed that he was dissatisfied with it, for a number of sentences and several whole paragraphs recur almost unchanged in Vainglory. The narrative style is still, relatively speaking, traditional, and Firbank's innovations in this respect are scarcely apparent. Compared with the later books it strikes one as loosely and even carelessly written; yet it is recognisably a Firbank novel, and marks a complete break with the style of Odette. The fantastic characters, the perverse humour, the sly allusions and innuendoes are all there; and the setting_an imaginary 'Ruritania'_will be reproduced in The Flower beneath the Foot.
Vainglory (1915) is Firbank's longest novel, and many of his admirers, including the present writer, find it almost his funniest, though not his best or most characteristic. It is diffuse and overcrowded, there is even less plot than usual, and the book is really a series of set-pieces so tenuously connected that a new reader may easily become confused. In his later work Firbank was to practise a greater concision and economy, but if the writing is over-lush and the structure somewhat top-heavy, Vainglory has a youthful charm and spontaneity which make it one of his most endearing novels.
Such plot as there is centres round the ambition of a Mrs. Shamefoot to commemorate herself (while still alive and, indeed, fairly young) by a stained glass window in a cathedral. This, however, is a mere peg_and not, perhaps, a very adequate one_to support a rich and complex verbal tapestry, in which innumerable characters endlessly converse against a background which is sometimes London but more often the cathedral town of Ashringford. There are countless parties, not the least memorable of which is, perhaps, that given by Mrs. Henedge (in Chapter II) to make known a newly discovered fragment of Sappho, and at which, too, many of the leading characters make their first appearance: Miss Compostella ('Nobody would have guessed her to be an actress, she was so private looking'); Mrs. Steeple who,
'one burning afternoon in July, with the thermometer at 90 . . ., had played Rosmersholm in Camberwell; Monsignor Parr, described as 'temperamental, when not otherwise . . . employed';
Winsome Brooks, Mrs. Asp, Miss Thumbler and many more.
The scene shifts to Ashringford, a city which, though bearing some faint generic resemblance to Winchester or Canterbury, can boast a Satanic colony and a bishop who is said to resemble 'a faun crowned with roses'. Here we are introduced to a host of new characters: Lady Anne Pantry, the Bishop's wife, who 'in the evening . . . sometimes suggested Phedre', and her secretary Miss Hospice, whose personality Firbank evokes in a kind of poetic shorthand:
'With a rather cruel yellow at her neck, waist and feet, and a poem of fifty sheets, on Verlaine at Bournemouth, at her back. What is there left to say';
Miss Wookie, Mrs. Pontypool, Lord Blucharnis, Mrs. Barrow of Dawn, and so on.
A word should perhaps be said about Firbank's use of comic names for his characters. In the hands of a less tactful writer this habit can become highly irritating, but Firbank's names, though one would find few of them in the telephone book, for the most part have just the right touch of fantasy: though intrinsically funny, they strike one as being just — though only just credible. Another aspect of Firbank which, to the more literal-minded reader, may seem merely tiresome, is his occasional indulgence in sheer nonsense. In Vainglory, perhaps more than elsewhere, this nonsensical vein is much in evidence: thus, Miss Missingham, the imaginary author of a work called Sacerdotalismand Satanism, is made to remark that the towers of the cathedral at twilight resemble 'the helmets of eunuchs at carnival time', a comparison which, one feels, could have occurred to nobody but Firbank, and which only his confirmed addicts will value at its true worth.
The next novel, Inclinations (1916), is in striking contrast with its predecessor. The dense, luxuriant texture of Vainglory has given place to a simpler, less involuted style; it is as though an overgrown hedge of rambler roses had been ruthlessly pruned by the gardener. Inclinations is a 'slim' book in every sense: very short, and as light as a souffle. The scene is laid mainly in Greece, where a fifteen year old girl, Mabel Collins, is touring with her female protectress, Miss O'Brookomore; Mabel elopes with an Italian count, but the plot is vestigial, and Firbank, one feels, became rather bored with it. The elopement is described in what is possibly the shortest chapter ever written:
'Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!
Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!'
The book is written almost entirely in dialogue; some of it displays Firbank at his best and funniest, but too often it lapses into a rather feebly exclamatory tone, and there are far too many dashes and exclamation marks. On the whole it is Firbank's weakest novel, though it contains some passages of great humour, and some typically Firbankian flights of fancy. One remembers, for instance, Miss O'Brookomore's comment upon a hotel orchestra in Athens: 'It sounds like the Incest-music to some new opera.' Or Mabel's lament after leaving Paris, on the journey out:
'Tomorrow . . . six Cornish girls are to dance at the Lune Grise. What a pity to have missed them.'
one shares Mabel's disappointment, for those Cornish girls must surely have provided an unusual and stimulating attraction for a Parisian cabaret.
With Caprice (1917) Firbank's art may be said to have achieved maturity. Like Inclinations, it is a lightweight affair, with none of the baroque elaboration of Vainglory; but here Firbank has his material more fully under control, the dialogue is more pointed, and the characters more sharply focused. Structurally it is one of his best books, and the narration, though typically oblique, is perfectly lucid. Its theme is that of the 'innocent abroad', which will recur in several of the later books: the stage-struck daughter of a clergyman, having purloined the family jewels, escapes to London determined to try her luck upon the boards; she rents a theatre and appears as Juliet, but on the morning after the first performance (having slept in the greenroom), she falls into a well beneath the stage. It is the first (but not the last) of Firbank's novels to have a 'tragic' ending.
There are many memorable passages: Sarah Sinquier's first visit to the Cafe Royal, for example, where she meets the sinister Mrs. Sixsmith (a name, incidentally, which does actually exist in real life); or her alarming interview with Mrs. Mary, the famous actress-manageress:
'The Boards, I believe, are new to you?' 'Absolutely.'
'I'm five full feet.' 'Say "Abyssinia".' 'Abyssinia!'
'As I guessed . . .'
'I was never there.' 'Now say "Joan".' 'Joan!'
'You're Comedy, my dear. Distinctly! And now sit down.'
Caprice reflects Firbank's passion for the theatre, and it seems probable that he would have preferred to write plays rather than novels. His attempts to do so, however, appear to have been unsuccessful, and his only published play, The Princess Zoubaroff (1920), though containing much amusing dialogue, shows little talent for dramatic construction.
The next novel Valmouth (1919), is possibly Firbank's best. It has a solidity and richness of texture which recall Vainglory, though by now Firbank's prose has become tauter and more concise. In Valmouth his preoccupation with Catholicism, noticeable in Vainglory, is greatly intensified: the atmosphere of the book is heavy with incense, and the characters include a number of priests, nuns and choir-boys, all of them eccentric and most of them (one is allowed to infer) morally unorthodox. The scene is an imaginary corner of England where the climate is so salubrious that most of the inhabitants live to be centenarians, among them Mrs. Hurstpierpoint and Mrs. Thoroughfare, who inhabit the local manor house. These two ladies, together with Mrs. Yadnavalkya, the negress masseuse, are among Firbank's most solidly drawn and unforgettable characters, and they dominate the book, though they are in fact only incidental to the plot, which is chiefly concerned with the courtship and marriage of Mrs. Thoroughfare's son to a bewitching young negress.
In Valmouth Firbank's descriptive powers are deployed more effectively than in any of the novels since Vainglory, more especially in the rustic episodes already mentioned; these, though partly parodic in intention, show that Firbank, when it suited him, could write a sustained and melodious prose which compares favourably with that of many writers far more highly esteemed as stylists. There is, as usual, a great deal of dialogue, but it is more concentrated and more carefully wrought than heretofore. Firbank's faculty for catching the precise tone and rhythm of the human voice has been referred to before, and nowhere is this employed more happily than in the diffuse, gushing monologues of Lady Parvula de Panzoust, a visiting grande dame who, though one of Firbank's most fantastic creations, is also one of his most plausible:
'One could count more alluring faces out with the Valmouth, my husband used to say, than with any other pack. The Baroness Elsassar — I can see her now on her great mauve mount with her profile of royalty in misfortune — never missed. Neither, bustless, hipless, chinless, did "Miss Bligh"! It was she who so sweetly hoisted me to my saddle when I'd slid a-heap after the run of a 'fairly fox'. We'd whiffed it — the baying of the dogs is something I shall never forget; dogs always know! — in a swede-field below your house, from where it took us by breakneck, rapid stages — (oh! oh!) — to the sands. There, it hurried off along the sea's edge with the harriers in full cry..all at once near Pizon Point, it vanished. Mr. Rogers, who was a little ahead, drew his horse in with the queerest gape — like a lost huntsman (precisely) in the Bibliotheque bleue.'
In Valmouth, too, Firbank employs a device which he has already used in Vainglory: the recording, as it might be by a tape-machine, of the confused and disconnected chatter of a crowd. In the following passage, the identities of the speakers are not specified, we are eavesdropping, as it were, upon a dozen or so different conversations proceeding simultaneously (the occasion is a garden fete), catching a word here and a word there:
'What could anyone find to admire in such a shelving profile?'
'We reckon a duck here of two or three and twenty not so old. And a spring chicken anything to fourteen.'
'My husband had no amorous energy whatsoever; which just suited me, of course.'
'I suppose when there's no room for another crow's-foot, one attains a sort of peace?'
'I once said to Doctor Fothergill, a clergyman of Oxford and a great friend of mine, "Doctor", I said, "oh, if only you could see my—
'Elle ettait jolie! Mais jolie! ... C'e'tait une si belle brune....!'
Leery . . .
'People look like pearls, dear, beneath your wonderful trees.'
'. . . Milka, to-night—she is like a beautiful Cosway.'
'Above social littleness....'
'Woman as I am!'
'. . . A Jewess in Lewisham who buys old clothes, old teeth, old plate, old lace. And gives very good prices indeed.'
' 'Er 'ealth I'm pleased to say is totally established.'
'If she pays her creditors sixpence in the pound it's the utmost they can expect.'
'Wonderful the Duchess of Valmouth's golden red hair, is it not?'
'"You lie to me", he said. "I'm not Iying, and I never lie", I said. "It's you who tell the lies." Oh! I reproached him.'
'I'm tired, dear, but I'm not bored! . . .'
'What is a boy of twenty to me?'
'It's a little pain-racked face -not that she really suffers.'
Santal (1921) is an anomaly in the Firbankian canon: a short story which seems a throwback to the mood of Odette. This wistfully sentimental tale of an Arab boy in search of God must have come as a disappointment, at the time, to admirers of Valmouth and Caprice; only in a few scraps of dialogue is Firbank's characteristic humour in evidence, and though agreeable enough in its way, the story exemplifies (like The Princess Zoubaroff) the limitations of its author.
The Flower Beneath The Foot (1923) might be described as Firbank's most 'typical' novel, combining as it does, in about equal proportions, his habitual preoccupations with sex, religion and social grandeur. The setting, moreover — an imaginary country which may be assumed to be some-where in the Balkans — is suitably exotic, and later writers who have come under Firbank's influence seem to have had this novel, more than the rest, in mind (a good example is Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief). The characters include the King and Queen, various high-born ladies about the Court, and (as usual) an attendant chorus of priests and nuns. Nor is the English colony neglected: Mrs. Montgomery, the royal governess, Mrs. Barleymoon and, best of all, Mrs. Bedley, who runs a Circulating Library:
'By the way, Miss Hopkins . . . I've to fine you for pouring tea over My Stormy Past.'
'It was coffee, Mrs. Bedley — not tea.'
'Never mind, dear, what it was, the charge for a stain is the same, as you know.'
This passage, incidentally, displays Firbank's skill in suggesting, without resort to phonetic spelling, the typical accent of a particular social class: Mrs. Bedley, one feels, was just a little too conscious of being a 'lady', and rather apt to overstress her own gentility.
In the same chapter Firbank himself makes an appearance, though only, as it were, off-stage:
'The Passing of Rose I read the other day,' Mrs. Montgomery said, 'and so enjoyed it.'
'Isn't that one of Ronald Firbank's books?'
'No, dear, I don't think it is....'
'I suppose I'm getting squeamish! But this Ronald Firbank I can't take to at all. Valmouth! Was there ever a novel more Coarse? I assure you I hadn't gone very far when I had to Put it down.'
'It's out', Mrs. Bedley suavely said, 'as well', she added, 'as the rest of them.'
'I once met him', Miss Hopkins said, dilating slightly the retinae of her eyes. 'He told me writing books was by no means easy!'
A moment later a nun enters the shop:
'Have you Valmouth by Ronald Firbank, or Inclinations by the same author?' she asked.
'Neither: I'm sorry—both are out!'
A maid-in-waiting, Laura de Nazianzi, loves and is loved by the Crown Prince who, however, throws her over for Princess Elsie of England, with whom a match has been arranged by the two royal families. Mile de Nazianzi, in despair, enters the Order of the Flaming Hood (like most religious orders in Firbank it appears to be remarkably lax in the matter of discipline), and ultimately, as a footnote informs us, becomes a saint. Once again the story has a quasi-tragic ending, but here, more than in Caprice, there are signs of an emotion genuinely felt; the theme of sexual frustration is a recurrent one in Firbank's work, and in the later novels it is given an increasing prominence. (The original English title was 'Sorrow in Sunlight'; the book appeared in the United States, however, as 'Prancing Nigger', and the American title has been used for all subsequent reprints in this country.)
Prancing Nigger (1925) is probably Firbank's most widely known book, and was particularly successful in America. Many people consider it the best of the novels, and even if one prefers Valmouth or Vainglory, one is bound to admit that Prancing Nigger is, technically, one of his finest achievements. One reason for its popularity, perhaps, is that it has (though Firbank would have winced at such a humourless suggestion) what might be interpreted as a 'serious' sociological theme: racial discrimination. The scene is a West Indian republic (compounded of Cuba and Haiti); a family of negroes, socially ambitious, move from their country home to the capital, and the story is concerned with their attempts — which prove mainly abortive — to 'get into society'. Once again, as in Caprice, Firbank is dealing with the social embarrassments and misadventures of the Innocent Abroad, though here the theme is treated, if not exactly seriously, at least with something approaching genuine sympathy. Young Edna Mouth becomes a white man's mistress, her brother frequents the society of 'youths of a certain life, known as bwam-wam bwam-wams'; as for their elder sister, Miss Miami Mouth, her lover is killed by a shark, and she, like Mlle de Nazianzi before her, seeks consolation in religion and pious works.
Firbank was strongly attracted towards the coloured races, and if his picture of the West Indian negro is hardly an accurate one, it is drawn with real (if amused) affection; the book is admirably constructed, and the ironic tragi-comedy of the final chapters, though exceedingly funny, comes nearer to being moving than anything else in Firbank's work.
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926) has something of the solidity of texture which characterized Valmouth, and the novel contains some of Firbank's best writing. It is set in Spain, and the Cardinal's 'eccentricities' include the baptism of pet dogs in his cathedral and an unsuitable passion for choir-boys. Plot is reduced to a minimum, once again the book consists of a series of conversation-pieces; there is a brief interlude at the Vatican, where Pope Tertius II is much troubled by 'these schisms in Spain', though the passage is perhaps chiefly notable for a hitherto unrecorded sidelight on the late Queen Victoria:
'The dear 'santissima' woman', the Pontiff sighed, for he entertained a sincere, if brackish, enthusiasm for the lady who for so many years had corresponded with the Holy See under the signature of The Countess of Lostwaters.
'Anglicans . . . Heliolaters and sun-worshippers', she had written in her most masterful hand, 'and your Holiness may believe us', she had added, 'when we say especially our beloved Scotch.'
Cardinal Pirelli is, incidentally, the bawdiest of Firbank's novels: what elsewhere has been suggested by a mere lift of the eyebrow is here presented without the least equivocation. On the whole, the change is not for the better; Firbank's mingling of sanctity and smut is not the most attractive aspect of his work, and to a modern reader seems curiously dated. The Cardinal's pursuit of the choir-boy, in the last chapter, is plainly intended to produce the half funny, half moving effect of the final passages in Prancing Nigger; the intention fails, however, for in these concluding pages of his last books (Since this was written, a fragment of 'The New Rhythum', a novel about New York which Firbank was at work on when he died, has been published, together with several pieces of juvenilia. The latter are of some interest, written as they were in the transitional phase between Odette and The Artificial Princess; the novel-fragment, though amusing enough, seems hardly up to the standard of its predecessors.). Firbank relapses once again into the sentimental and too consciously 'literary' style of Odette and Santal. It is as though the two contrasted elements in his personality, so happily blended in his best work, had here refused to mingle, and the effect is of an uneasy collaboration between two quite disparate writers.
Firbank is not an author who lends himself to facile literary judgments: he cannot be fitted into any of the normal categories, and to dissect his novels as one might, say, those of George Eliot, is, as E. M. Forster has wisely said, equivalent to breaking a butterfly upon a wheel (Essay on Firbank in 'Abinger Harvest'). In any case, one must first catch one's butterfly, and Firbank, more than most writers, eludes pursuit, and refuses to be pinned down. Any judgement upon him is bound to be highly personal: either one enjoys his work or one does not, and it is all but impossible to explain its merits to those who dislike it.
Firbank has been compared, in an earlier passage of this essay, with James Joyce, and though no two writers seem, on the face of it, more dissimilar, the comparison could be extended. Neither Joyce nor Firbank, in their earliest work, appeared to possess more than the slenderest of talents: Odette can be paralleled by the vapid and derivative poems in Chamber Music. Both, however, were gifted with great literary virtuosity and a talent for pastiche, and were thus enabled to produce works totally different in quality and scope from anything which could have been predicted from their juvenilia. But whereas Joyce was tempted to work on a vast scale (and thereby, as some may think, to dissipate much of his natural talent), Firbank was content to recognise his own limitations, and to write in the manner which he found easiest and most pleasing to himself.
Firbank is without doubt a minor writer (whether Joyce, for all his present 'reclame', is a major one, is a question which can only be settled by posterity), but one who, for the most part, achieved precisely what he set out to do. Sometimes his inspiration flags, he can be irritating and downright silly; yet he is one of those artists who, as Cyril Connolly has said,
'attempt, with a purity and a kind of dewy elegance, to portray the beauty of the moment, the gaiety and sadness, the fugitive distress of hedonism. (The Condemned Playground.)
Such artists are not, perhaps, very fashionable today; yet among them can be numbered (as Mr. Connolly goes on to say) such names as Horace, Watteau and Mozart. Firbank, of course, is not their peer, but he is a citizen, so to speak, of the same country; though not a great artist, he is that rare phenomenon in English literature, a pure artist, and as such he deserves our respect.